Though he lived in France and was influenced by the French surrealists, he wrote his own poetry in German. His first collection of poems, Sand from the Urns, was published in Vienna in 1948; his second collection, Poppy and Memory (Mohn und Gedaechtnis, 1952), brought him critical acclaim. Katherine Washburn, his translator, noted in her introduction to Last Poems (1986): “The title of this book [Poppy and Memory] pointed with a fine vividness to the central predicament of Celan’s poetry—the unstable and dangerous union between Paul Celan, caught early in that sensual music of the Surrealists, pure poet of the intoxicating line, and Paul Ancel, heir and hostage to the most lacerating of human memories.”
While Celan is perhaps best known for his poem “Death Fugue” (or “Todesfuge”), it is not necessarily representative of his later work. Reviewing the 1981 publication Paul Celan: Poems in the New York Times, Rika Lesser said the poem’s “richly sonic, dactylic lines (spoken by the inmates of a camp), while typical of Celan's mastery of form, content, texture and sound, are hardly indicative of the direction his composition would later take.” As his career continued, Celan worked to “purge his poems of readymade contexts - whether historical, traditional or explicitly religious. The late poems still abound in allusions - private, hermeneutic, esoteric - but increasingly each poem becomes and creates its own context and the context within which Celan's other poems must be read.”
This transformation has much to do with the language in which Celan wrote. As Shoshana Olidort notes in her Chicago Tribune review of Breathturn Into Timestead: Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (trans. by Pierre Joris and published by FSG, 2014), Celan was “a Holocaust survivor, [who] wrote in German, his mother tongue and also the language of his mother's murderers … As a German-speaking Jewish survivor living in France, Celan harbored feelings of intense estrangement from the language and thus set about creating his own language through what Joris eloquently describes as a “dismantling and rewelding” of German. The result, Olidort writes, “is arguably even darker than his earlier poems with their direct references to the Shoah. For Celan, darkness is not willed obscurity, rather, the poem comes out of lived experience and is "born dark.”
Celan received the Bremen Prize for German Literature in 1958 and the Georg Buchner Prize in 1960. He suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1970.
- The Sand from the Urns (Der Sand aus den Urnen, 1948).
- Poppy and Memory (Mohn und Gedächtnis, 1952).
- From Threshold to Threshold (Von Schwelle zu Schwelle, 1955).
- Speechwicket / Speech Grille (Sprachgitter, 1959).
- The No-One's-Rose (Die Niemandsrose, 1963).
- Breathturn (Atemwende, 1967).
- Threadsuns / Twinesuns / Fathomsuns (Fadensonnen, 1968).
- Lightduress (Lichtzwang, 1970).
- Snow Part [posthumous] (Schneepart, 1971).
- Timestead / Homestead of Time [posthumous] (Zeitgehöft, 1976) .